VIRGINIA SHERWOOD/NBC NEWSWIRE VIA AP IMAGES
In a year bursting with memorable moments in televised political punditry, the first may have come on January 8, when MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow explained one of the quick-spreading theories behind Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, a surprise win that had knocked many of Maddow’s on-air colleagues on their asses.
“You want to know who they’re blaming for women voters breaking for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama?” a delighted Maddow asked co-panelist Pat Buchanan and host Chris Matthews, her eyes flashing. “They’re blaming Chris Matthews! People are citing specifically Chris…not only for his own views but also as a symbol of what the mainstream media has done to Hillary Clinton.”
Matthews sputtered dismissively, but Maddow wasn’t done yet. “People feel the media is piling on Hillary Clinton,” she said, “and they’re coming to her defense with their votes.” For Matthews, who’d been enjoying near rapturous pleasure over the presumptive early-season thumping of his personal hobgoblin, there could not have been worse news than that his own commentary might have paved the way for Clinton’s triumph. Yet here was just this headline, delivered by Maddow, looking like Sylvester the Cat, practically licking yellow feathers from the corners of her mouth.
“I didn’t mean it in a mean way at all,” says Maddow over breakfast on a summer day many months and many MSNBC promotions away from that indelible January night. “But I knew that it was just going to blow his mind.”
Matthews is far from the first talking head to get this treatment. Long before this primary season, clips of Maddow, an Air America host often invited on cable news shows as a ballsy gremlin of the left, zipped around the Internet. Her specialty was making Tucker Carlson’s head explode, or getting under Buchanan’s skin until all he could do was gibber at her about socialism. But presidential election cycles provide the hot klieg lights under which character actors mature into media leading ladies, and at 35, with fewer than five years of national broadcast experience under her belt, Rachel Maddow is the explosive star of the season. She’s gone from being a popular guest analyst on MSNBC to an exclusive commentator to a regular guest host for the network’s prize pig, Countdown With Keith Olbermann. Now there is increasing clang and clamor over the possibility that she will get her own show on MSNBC.
What’s remarkable about Maddow’s ascension is not its velocity–Hurricane Katrina made Anderson Cooper in less than a week–but the shifts in media it may demarcate. Maddow is one of the few left-liberal women to bust open the world of TV punditry, which has made icons of right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. Unlike her beautiful, bilious conservative female counterparts or the cocksure boys-on-the-bus analysts, however, Maddow didn’t get here by bluster and bravado but with a combination of crisp thinking and galumphing good cheer. Remarkably, this season’s discovery isn’t a glossy matinee idol or a smooth-talking partisan hack but a PhD Rhodes scholar lesbian policy wonk who started as a prison AIDS activist.